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Lews Castle College — celebrating 60 years of Gaelic Education

Publishing is a hard enough business. It’s even harder when the potential audience is quite small. The problem with Gaelic is that the number of native speakers is dwindling and, while there are schools in the Central Belt offering primary education in the language, there aren’t enough new speakers to provide an economic market. It’s an issue that will be discussed at an event in Benbecula next week, the last is a series of talks on Gaelic which have taken place this year.

Catriona Lexy Campbell

Catriona Lexy Campbell

Along with Rosemary Ward from the Gaelic Books Council (Comhairle nan Leabhraichean), the novelist and poet, Catriona Lexy Campbell from Lewis, will explore the challenges and opportunities of writing and publishing in Gaelic. They’ll look at the problems of starting a book, approaching publishers, the publication process and digital developments. Ms Campbell is currently the writer in residence at the Gaelic College, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). This year’s talks have tied in with courses offered by the university, which include degrees in Gaelic language and culture.

Based on the theme of Gaelic in modern life, the lectures have recognised Gaelic as an integral part of Scotland’s heritage and national identity. They included a talk by the Head of BBC ALBA, Margaret Mary Murray, who spoke about Gaelic media at an event in Glasgow at the start of the year.

Rosemary Ward Gaelic Books Council

Rosemary Ward
Gaelic Books Council

Ms Campbell says that, through her work with Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, “I have had many opportunities to meet people who are interested in writing in Gaelic and I’m very happy to be taking part in this project and building on that experience. I’m sure it’ll be a great day.”

Rosemary Ward added that the lectures “highlight the contribution the media, education and literature and publishing have made to the revitalisation of Gaelic. I am particularly pleased to be invited to deliver the lecture in Benbecula in front of a ‘home’ audience having, myself, been brought up and educated in South Uist. Comhairle nan Leabhraichean is committed to increasing the number, range and quality of Gaelic publications and our development strategy focuses on supporting Gaelic authors, editors and publishers to produce accessible, new and exciting Gaelic books. The upsurge in digital developments presents challenges and opportunities for us in our efforts to address the demands of readers to have Gaelic literature available in a variety of formats.”

Organised by the University of the Highlands and Islands, the lecture series marked the 60th anniversary of Lews Castle College UHI. This last in the series will take place from 7pm to 9pm on Wednesday 19 June at Sgoil Lionacleit, Benbecula. It will be delivered in Gaelic with simultaneous interpretation into English available through headphones.

A survey of public attitudes to Gaelic suggests that there is public support for the Scottish government’s decision to spend £24m a year on the language. Some 45% thought the sum was about right; 16% said it was too little; but 33% thought it too much. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey also show support for the use of Gaelic on road signs in areas in which Gaelic is spoken. Indeed, around half of the people surveyed thought the signs should be available throughout Scotland.

Gaelic Road SignsOther findings include many Scots believing that parents should have the right to send their children to a Gaelic school. There was widespread support for the idea of young people being taught in Gaelic, with English as a secondary language. Some 91 per cent agreed when asked if parents in Gaelic-speaking areas should have that right. It fell to 48 per cent in other parts of the country, but still a significant minority. However, that would take considerable investment since under 2,500 children are currently taught in Gaelic schools.

Despite this apparent support for the language and indeed the millions spent on trying to save it, more than half of those surveyed thought the future for Gaelic in Scotland was bleak. At present, it’s spoken by fewer than 60,000 Scots and less than half of those surveyed thought that things would get better over the coming 50 years. However, when asked if learning Gaelic was pointless for people of today, 44 per cent disagreed and only 22 per cent agreed.

The project director, Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University, said: “These results from the highly-respected Scottish Social Attitudes Survey show widespread support for Gaelic – probably much more extensively than is often supposed.”

And a Scottish government spokesman described Gaelic language and culture as “an integral part of Scotland’s identity. This research shows the very positive attitudes to Gaelic from across Scotland. The continued increase in demand for Gaelic Medium Education clearly demonstrates that parents are not only recognising the impressive learning benefits that come with a bilingual education, but that we are securing a sustainable and vibrant future for the language in future generations.”

Beltane is the Celtic May Day festival. It marks the midway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice Its traditions date back into prehistory. The celebrations now held on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill however are modern re-interpretations of what might have taken place. They may be inspired by the folklore associated with the old Beltane; but this event is much more of a cultural one which blends the myths and drama from a range of world cultures.

In this photo-essay, the photographer, Thomas Haywood, has captured the spirit of the evening. His pictures can be purchased from his website.

The Revellers Gather at Dusk

The Revellers Gather at Dusk

The event now attracts thousands of people from around the World. Even some of the actors have travelled long distances to be in Edinburgh for this one night.

The Costumes help create the Atmosphere of the Evening

The Costumes help create the Atmosphere of the Evening

The main show starts at the Scottish National Monument, otherwise knows and Edinburgh’s Parthenon (and in older times, “Scotland’s Disgrace”, so named because it was never completed).

The Beltane Fires are Lit at the Parthenon on Calton Hill

The Beltane Fires are Lit at the Parthenon on Calton Hill

The revellers are led by the May Queen in a procession around the hill. She is aided and abetted by a large number of “helpers” and guided by fire.

The May Queen makes her way around Calton Hill

The May Queen makes her way around Calton Hill

The Beltane Fire Society is a charity run by a Board of volunteers who oversee the year-round operation of the organisation. The society is funded entirely by donations through its membership, from Beltane Fire Festival ticket sales and merchandising. We receive no donations from any public funds.

The Fires chase away the memories of the harsh winter

The Fires chase away the memories of the harsh winter

The modern Beltane Fire Festival was created in 1988. Today, the whole event is managed by the Beltane Fire Society, a charity run by volunteers. The Society’s stated aim was to create a sense of community, an appreciation of the cyclical nature of the seasons and a human connection to the environment – something that is often overlooked in our modern urban life.

Red Devils give the whole event a mischievous tone

Red Devils give the whole event a mischievous tone

The Society encourages every active member to take a role in its development and the events that it organises. Each year every position on the Board is available by vote and those positions are open to any member of the Society — all very democratic.

The whole event is a spectacular celebration of Spring

The whole event is a spectacular celebration of Spring

In keeping with celtic tradition, the history of the Festival is maintained mainly through storytelling. Beltane lore is held by the Blues, a respected group of the society’s ‘old hands’ who build the stories through their considerable experience in participation and involvement in the Beltane Fire Society.

Our thanks to Thomas Haywood for these excellent pictures.

<em>Picture: Georg Tanner</em>

Picture: Georg Tanner

sùil – eye

Listen to the pronunciation guide

Short and simple, and a very common word. Sùil is eye and the plural is sùilean. In addition, the word has a meaning in the Gaelic phrase for “look”. When asking a person to “take a look at this”, we say thoir sùil air an seo, literally “take an eye at this”.

Sùil is also used to mean expectation. We say: tha sùil agam ris mu shia uairean, “I am expecting him about six o’clock”.

The old fear of an droch shùil, or “the evil eye”, is not unique to the Gaels, but the phrase is common enough.

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Clò Mòr <em>Picture: PKM</em>

Clò Mòr Picture: PKM

clò – cloth/material/print

Listen to the pronunciation guide

Clò means cloth, in particular heavy kinds of cloth such as tweed. The standard Gaelic for Harris Tweed is Clò Mòr, literally “big cloth” or “great cloth”. Clò Hearach, which literally means the Harris Cloth is also used for Harris Tweed.

Older books might refer to Clò Mòr as Clò Mór. Gaelic nouns have gender and clò is a masculine noun. Therefore Clò Mòr and not Clò Mhòr, and certainly not Clò Mohr. Nowadays, clò is used almost as a synonym for Clò Mòr.

Those who are into Doctor Who will no doubt know that one of his incarnations has recently been sporting a Harris Tweed jacket. This has given some hope to an industry which is reviving but which is substantially smaller than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Clò also means “printing” or “publish” in Gaelic. The Gaelic phrase for “to print” or “to publish” is cuir ann an clò, which literally means “put into print”.

Clò as in cloth and clò as in printing are not related words, despite their appearance. Clò meaning “printing” used to be spelt clòdh, and the silent letters at the end have simply been lost. The Gaelic verb meaning “printing” is clò-bhual, which literally means “type-hit”, with hit as in strike a blow.

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William Hague, Rùnaire Cèin <em>Picture: US Department of State</em>

William Hague, Rùnaire Cèin Picture: US Department of State

cian – age/distance

Listen to the pronunciation guide

Cian is one of these words hardly ever used in modern Gaelic on its own with its original meaning, but which is used as part of other bigger words or in set expressions. Cian means “long distance” in classical Gaelic. It then came to be used in certain phrases such as bho chian nan cian, which literally means “from extremely long distance of the long distances”, but came to mean “a really long time ago”, or “the beginning of time” etc.

Bho na ciantan, which literally means “from the long and far off distances”, came also to mean “a long long time ago”. Gaelic has grammatical cases which change both the spelling and the pronunciation of words. The Gaelic for “of a long distance”, what grammarians would refer to as the genitive case of the word, is cèin – sometimes spelt céin, especially in older books.

Cèin means “foreign” in modern Gaelic, but usually of a country and not of a person. The Gaelic title of the Foreign Office is Oifis nan Dùthchannan Cèin, and the Foreign Secretary is Rùnaire nan Dùthchannan Cèin, or Rùnaire Cèin for short. We might say of a friend who works abroad: tha e ag obair ann an tìrean cèin, “he works in far-off (foreign) countries”.

Cian is also found in the word cianalas, which means homesickness or nostalgia. There is a whole class of Gaelic poetry, written by Gaels who went to the cities of the Central Belt or to the likes of Canada or Australia, called Bàrdachd Cianalais, or Homesickness Poetry.

Cianail is an adjective related to cian. This word varies a lot in meaning according to context. Its most common meaning is “melancholy” or “depressed”. “I’m feeling really down” is tha mi a’ faireachdainn cianail. However, cianail is also used to mean “very much”, especially in Uist and Argyll. We might say: tha e cianail fhèin fliuch an diugh, meaning “it’s really really wet today”.

The word sometimes has a slang meaning of “unhinged”, as in outrageously funny. One might say ‘S e duine cianail a tha sin: “that guy is totally manic”.

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Seann taigh, Miughalaigh <em>Picture: Paul Store</em>

Seann taigh, Miughalaigh Picture: Paul Store

seann – old

Listen to the pronunciation guide

Sometimes spelt sean, it is one of two words for “old” in Gaelic. The other one is aosta, which is spelt aosda in older books. The difference between the two words is how they are used in sentences.

In Gaelic, adjectives normally come after the noun. However, there is a small group of adjectives which are before the noun. French has the same rule with most adjectives being after the noun but a small group being before the noun. This writer has always wondered whether this is some kind of long-lost link between French and the Celtic languages.

Both seann taigh and taigh aosta mean “old house” in Gaelic. Sean crops up in the Gaelic for both grandfather and grandmother. The Gaelic for grandfather is seanair, which is a shortened form of sean athair, literally “old father”. Great-grandfather is sean-seanair, literally “old old father”, and so forth.

In colloquial Gaelic, the word seanair is often shortened to sen, pronounced shen. The Gaelic for grandmother is seanmhair, and literally means “old mother”, with sean seanmhair being great grandmother.

The word seanair comes up in a very useful Gaelic idiom: b’ eòlach do sheanair. This means literally: “your grandfather knew”. However, it is actually used to mean “ooh fancy”, just like the sketch in the BBC Scotland sketch show Chewin’ the Fat.

For example, someone showing off their swish new iPad might be sarcastically told: b’ eòlach do sheanair air iPad in order to take them down a peg or two. No doubt the grandfather was more into Android.

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Sinn Féin – ourselves <em>Picture: Keresaspa</em>

Sinn Féin – ourselves Picture: Keresaspa

fèin – self

Listen to the pronunciation guide

The word is often spelt féin in older books and the resemblance to the Irish word féin – as is Sinn Féin – is not a coincidence. Fèin and féin are the same words and mean the same thing. Sinn Féin means “ourselves” in Irish and in Scottish Gaelic.

In the modern language, the word fèin often changes. In the past, Gaels said, or at least wrote, mi féin – “myself”, thu féin – “yourself”, e féin – “himself”, i fèin – “herself”, and so forth. In the modern language, at least in most dialects, we say mi fhìn, thu fhèin, e fhèin, sinn fhìn – “ourselves”, sibh féin – “yourselves” (plural), iad fhèin – “themselves”.

Some speakers, especially in Lewis, insert a p-sound when saying sibh fèin, so that it sounds like si pèin. Readers who remember the Angus Òg cartoons in the Daily Record may recall that the islanders often use “myself”, “yourself”, “himself” and so forth in conversation when standard English would simply use “me”, “you”, “him”, “her” etc.

Gaelic speakers are keen on using different forms of pronouns in order to emphasise what they might be talking about. The English sentence “I shall do that” could be translated Nì mi sin, Nì mise sin or Nì mi fhìn sin. It depends on what the speaker wants to emphasise. With Nì mi sin, the speaker is stressing that he will do the action in question, that the action will be done – as in saying “Don’t worry, it will be done”.

With the other two, the speaker is stressing that he or she is the person who will do it, effectively saying “I am the one who will be doing that” as opposed to anyone else. These forms are called emphatic pronouns by grammar experts. The mise and the mi fhèin forms have identical meanings in modern Gaelic.

Learners of the language should not be scared of this feature in Gaelic. It takes practice to use them all in common speech. But the easy bit about these forms is that if you get them a bit mixed up, people will not misunderstand. Gaelic-speaking children often first use these emphatic forms of pronouns rather than the mi, thu, e, i etc which learners first encounter.

For completeness, here are all the forms of pronouns in modern Gaelic which we have not mentioned above. Mi/mise – I, thu/thusa – you, e/esan – he, i/ise – she, sinn/sinne – we, sibh/sibhse – you (plural), iad/iadsan – they.

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Chan eil cothroman ann an diugh <em>Picture: Ardfern</em>

Chan eil cothroman ann an diugh Picture: Ardfern

cothrom – opportunity/balance/weight

Listen to the pronunciation guide

The th-sound is silent and the word is pronounced corrom. The word is worth knowing about because it has several meanings in the modern language.

The most common meaning is “opportunity”. We might talk about a cothrom-obrach: a job opportunity. Or a businessman might tell an investor that there are cothroman in a new market.

When jobs are scarce, people might say: Chan eil cothroman ann an diugh – “There are no opportunities around today”. In this sense, the word crops up in an idiom. The phrase: Chan eil cothrom air means, literally, “There is no opportunity upon it”, or “There is no alternative”, always in a negative sense.

Cothrom is also used to mean “weight” or “balance”, as in blocks of metal used for weighing or securing items. A cothrom-beart, for example, is a block of metal with a handle across the centre of it and which is used to balance machinery on a traditional Harris Tweed loom.

However, the use of cothrom as a noun meaning “weight” or “balance” is becoming uncommon in the spoken language because of confusion with cothrom as in opportunity, and the word cuideam, also meaning “weight”, is replacing it in this sense.

Cuideam normally means weight as in the weight of a person or an object. Someone buying livestock might ask: Dè an cuideam a th’ anns a’ chaora sin? Literally: “What weight is in that sheep?” and meaning “How heavy in that sheep?” Someone going to the gym to lift weights would most likely talk of togail cuideaman, for “lifting weights”, or slaodadh cuideaman, literally “pulling weights”, rather than togail cothroman, which might be misunderstood as referring to creating opportunities.

The phrase Cothrom na Fèine, also Cothrom na Fèinne, and sometimes Cothrom na Féinne, is worth knowing about. The phrase literally means “Opportunity of the Fingalians”, and originally referred to single combat in either wrestling or sword-fighting whether as sport or in battle. Nowadays, the phrase normally means “fair opportunity”, “a fair crack at the whip”, or that glorious journalistic and political cliché “a level playing-field”.

Another nice idiom is làn-chothrom, which literally means “full opportunity” and is used to mean a good chance of something.

Meanwhile, the adjective cothromach – which is derived from cothrom – means “fair” or “just”. Sometimes it has the meaning of “weighty” or “comfortable”, but this is uncommon in the modern spoken language.

And the verb cothromachadh means “balancing out” or “smoothing”. If Gaeldom gets its own version of Fox News, it could have cothromach is air a chothromachadh as a slogan. Or maybe not.

ampersanagus – and

Listen to the pronunciation guide

The word is nice and simple, but the pronunciation can trip up learners. The g in the middle of the word is pronounced differently to either of the g sounds in most English words. The word is often shortened to is, which still means and, but the shorter form might just fit into the rhythm of the sentence better. And sometimes the word is shortened to nothing more than an s-sound, as words are run together in speech.

The word is used just as its English equivalent. Traditionally, the Gaelic equivalent of the ampersand (&) was similar to the numeral 7 and is still to be found in Ireland, especially where Celtic-style script is used. It is occasionally used in Scottish Gaelic handwriting, especially when taking quick notes in the language.

The traditional abbreviation can be found in the Gaelic form of etcetera in books. It comes in two forms: 7c and 7rl. The 7c form is a hybrid of Gaelic and Latin while the 7rl form is a more emphatically Gaelic abbreviation. It stands for agus ra leanntainn, which means “and following on”.

In modern spoken Gaelic, the phrase for etc is is mar sin air adhart, meaning “and like that onwards”.

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